Room with a view

The extensive wine selection and attractive sights overshadow the food at Hyde Park's Wine Exchange

click to enlarge FOREIGN EXCHANGE: Dishes like the Thai noodle salad with seared shrimp often have an Asian tilt. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
FOREIGN EXCHANGE: Dishes like the Thai noodle salad with seared shrimp often have an Asian tilt.

I step into The Wine Exchange at least a half hour before my dinner companions — two lovely ladies from the Weekly Planet World HQ. Ostensibly, it's a wine bar, so I see it as my solemn duty to absorb the atmosphere — along with a few glasses of delicious fermented grape juice — before dinner, right?

A huge stone bar dominates the small room next to the Sunshine Theater in Old Hyde Park. Everything in the place is so neo-classical — faux vines running across Venetian plaster walls, stone columns, bunches of quartz grapes suspended from the ceiling — I expect a toga'd waitress to pour me a bowl of wine from a cracked amphora. Nope, just a bottle — Mer et Soleil Treana ($8.95) — right into a nicely shaped glass.

Viscous and floral, the golden viognier/marsanne blend is almost good enough to distract me from the uncomfortable barstools. They are narrow, with footrests so high that my 6-foot-1 250-pound frame feels like it's folded into Delta economy class. Looking around, though, my guess is that Wine Exchange's core clientele doesn't tend toward the, um, husky gentleman.

There is a steady flow of the hip, young and wealthy sauntering by. It's not just painted-on jeans, kitten-heeled sandals and Prada bags, although there is that. At one table are two chiseled, business-casual broker types looking intense over their sandwiches. Over there is a dead ringer for Katie Holmes, conservatively dressed, with a rock on her finger big enough for the future Mrs. Cruise.

The best view is from the patio. Sitting on wrought iron in dappled shadows cast by a canopy of oak, you can watch a parade of spandex-clad joggers and well-heeled dog walkers, each better looking than the last. Aaahh, how I love to visit South Tampa.

I'm not being snide; really, I'm not. It is pretty to look at, a habitat for the beautiful people created by Old Hyde Park and The Wine Exchange. However, once I avert my eyes and start paying attention to the food and wine, I realize that appearances can be deceiving.

Just look at the menu: Miso soup shares space with Thai beef salad and fried gnocchi. It's a good concept — a core of fresh Mediterranean cuisine supplemented by daily specials that often have an Asian tilt. In execution, though, there isn't much depth.

A spoon dipped into the mushroom miso noodle soup ($2.95) brings up a puddle of muddy, salty liquid. The broth is made so earthy (and occasionally gritty) by the mushrooms that the natural delicacy of the miso is all but lost. It's sad, because there is a lot of potential in the broken bits of pillowy noodles, so tender they seem to evaporate on the tongue.

Baked chevre ($8.95) should be a slam-dunk, but it's served atop a pool of chunky tomato sauce. Tart tomatoes and similarly tart goat cheese make for one hell of a tart dish, and our tastebuds are further assaulted by an oppressive amount of spicy fresh basil infusing the sauce and draped on top. We start digging past the red and green for some gooey white goodness.

In stark contrast, crab ravioli ($8.95) are smothered in an emasculated cousin of the chevre sauce, devoid of any complex flavor. In any case, hearty herbs, tomatoes and cream are an incongruous match with delicate, buttery crab, jeopardizing the dish's balance.

Our Thai beef salad ($8.95) is also sanitized. I strain to discover what might be a whiff of fish sauce, an all-too-subtle bite of pepper, perhaps a meager splash of vinegar. My companions like it, but they have never tasted the rustic punch of tart lime, pungent fermented fish sauce and powerful chili heat that highlight this dish at your local Thai joint. All of those deliciously rough edges have been sanded down, leaving boring beef, fresh salad and no soul.

Worst of the bunch, though, is a dish called seared gnocchi ($13.95). Some of the sautéed potato dumplings are crisp and golden, some pale and tender, but all have absorbed so much fry oil that we are unable to eat more than a couple.

As the waiter drops off some dessert menus, I suddenly realize that he hasn't looked at us the entire meal. It's as if there is something vastly more interesting that he would like to get back to, perhaps another table, perhaps his conversation with the cute bartender. Even with his distracted manner, though, he gets the job done. By the way, the mango, mocha and raspberry mousse cakes — none of them made in house — are all largely forgettable.

Luckily, a steady supply of the red, white and rosé water of life makes the food and service easier to stomach. With about 40 wines by the glass, The Wine Exchange has one of the most extensive sipping selections in Tampa. They also offer three "flights" — each a collection of smaller pours of three different but related wines.

There are a few surprises — sweet Boutari from Greece and dark El Chaparral from Spain are two — but the wine list is largely populated with a lot of typical standbys. It's also heavily weighed to full-blown New World wines from California, Australia and South America that often clash with the food. With light Mediterranean cuisine filling the menu, The Wine Exchange might consider serving a greater selection of wines from countries that actually border the Med.

Lunch is the best time to eat at The Wine Exchange, even if the view is not quite as compelling. Straightforward, fresh salads and sandwiches served on hearty, rustic bread are the norm. The "Fresca," a frequent special at lunch and dinner, is an unfussy tomato, basil and mozzarella salad accented by a slab of plain fish or chicken. Each bite makes the plaster and columns seem a little less faux.

I'd like to say that the people hanging around The Wine Exchange are just as shallow as they appear, but they aren't. I know a few of them, and beneath the trendy coifs and hip couture lurk interesting and complex personalities. If only I could say the same about The Wine Exchange.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

Scroll to read more Food News articles

Newsletters

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.